Competition is tough in the world of fashion. Today it’s harder than ever to be a successful contemporary brand as younger shoppers turn to fast fashion brands like Zara and H&M for shopping needs, and direct-to-consumer competitors forge partnerships with retail companies. For contemporary brands, the timing seems perfect to find alternative ways to move merchandise.
Announced Wednesday, Kohl’s is adding a new star to its fashion-forward roster. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are bringing their contemporary women’s line Elizabeth and James on as an exclusive retail partner. Contemporary brands may be having struggling, but Kohl’s is continuing to find success in unexpected ways, like a thriving partnership with Amazon that allows customers to return Amazon orders to Kohl’s stores for free.
The trend of pricier fashion lines partnering with mass retailers isn’t a new trend — Vera Wang is a longtime partner with Kohl’s, Target often launches collaborations with brands like Lily Pulitzer and Hunter — but what are the implications for a contemporary brand when these two worlds collide.
“The contemporary space is really tough right now,” said Boston Consulting Group partner and managing director Sarah Willersdorf. “It’s competing with fast fashion. You have a bunch of startups like Reformation and Revolve that have these unique propositions, so it’s a tricky space.” Reformation has built itself up around its sustainability platform, while Revolve has leveraged influencer partnerships to drive as much as 70 percent of its sales.
While Elizabeth and James currently sells on sites like Shopbop and Net-a-Porter, as well as at Neiman Marcus, partnering with Kohl’s will give the brand a lot more physical retail locations. With this new partnership, Elizabeth and James will be sold exclusively at Kohl’s, which currently has 1,158 stores.
“I imagine the proposition Kohl’s is talking about is that they bring a physical store network, which is obviously really expensive,” Willersdorf said. “They also likely bring a more robust e-commerce platform.”
The retailer hasn’t yet shared what price point the line will be sold out, but the expectation is that prices will drop. Currently most clothing items are priced at over $300.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen will continue to operate Elizabeth and James as an independent business and will retain all creative control for the line. Beginning this holiday season, a variety of Elizabeth and James apparel, handbags and accessories will be available at Kohl’s.
In an earlier statement from the brand, Ashley Olsen said she and her sister admire how innovative Kohl’s is and how the retailer is, “thinking differently about omnichannel retail. We have always seen Elizabeth and James speaking to a much larger audience, and this new business model with Kohl’s will allow us to achieve that,” she said. Olsen also mentioned that the partnership will help Elizabeth and James enter into new categories, mainly lifestyle.
The addition is definitely a win for Kohl’s, taking another celebrity-backed brand and making it more accessible for all consumers. Kohl’s declined to provide additional comment at this time, but in a press release about the news, Kohl’s chief merchandising officer said the addition of Elizabeth and James “will heighten what it means to make fashion accessible. The addition of the esteemed Elizabeth and James brand and its elevated design aesthetic builds on our continued work to evolve our brand portfolio and deliver a strong pipeline of new offerings.”
It’s also part of a larger strategy for the retailer to draw in more millennial customers, something it’s been working toward with lines from names like Lauren Conrad, millennial-focused media company Popsugar (which launched last September) and the upcoming Nine West launch in Fall 2019.
For Elizabeth and James, the move to partner with a mainstream retailer means making the brand more accessible to a new group of shoppers — something that both the Olsen brand and Kohl’s can benefit from.
“For the Elizabeth and James, it’s a needed move to try to realize the Olsen’s strategic vision. When the brand was bought back from licensee Jaya Apparel Group in August 2015, it was trying to offset a decline in popularity and sales, and it hasn’t work initially,” said Ray Hartjen, director of marketing at retail analytics firm RetailNext. “Kohl’s brings a ready-made outlet for the Olsens to target who they want to target: younger shopper generations who can’t afford The Row, but who they want to introduce to the brand and nurture as long-term customers.”